morning at the marsh

It’s amazing how much you can see early in the morning before the cyclists and hikers have hit the trails around the local marsh.  And it always amazes me to find such a diversity of wildlife inhabiting a small wild oasis in the urban landscape! I’m sure if I had spent more time on this hot, humid morning, I would have seen even more.

floating island-

Dense mats of cattails float around the marsh propelled by the prevailing water flow.  They attract a wide variety of wildlife that may hunt from their edges, nest in their stalks, and hide within small crevices from the peeping eyes of photographers.

great blue heron-

Great Blue Herons are often found along the shoreline, usually obscured by the vegetation.

great blue heron-

Another heron was making its way down toward the shoreline — perhaps the mate of the other one?

great egret-

I can always count on seeing a Great Egret or two foraging near the edge of the marsh.

green heron-

What else is hiding here in this vegetation near the shore? A Green Heron pops up to see if I’m a dangerous predator.

green heron-

A less nervous juvenile Green Heron hunted in the shallows.

common loon-

Out in the water, a Common Loon swam by.

double crested cormorant-

Nearby, a double-crested Cormorant surfaced from its dive, and took a look around.

I spotted something white way out in the middle of the marsh, swimming quickly away from me, and grabbed a quick shot of a Trumpeter Swan family with their two, seemingly newly hatched, cygnets.

trumpeter swan family-

It’s a bit late to find these newly hatched chicks; perhaps the first nesting failed and these are result of a second nesting attempt. The chicks have a lot of growing to do before they reach the body size of the adults which can weigh more than 20 lb.

trumpeter swan family-

Along the creek

It’s amazing how much wildlife coexists with human enterprise in urban areas.  Los Gatos creek is a major riparian corridor in San Jose CA that attracts not only humans anxious to flex their muscles while exercising along the trail that parallels the creek, but a wide variety of birds that utilize the ponds and creek that drain upstream reservoirs. Even though rain recharges the reservoirs in the winter, the creek runs all year, sustaining this narrow band of riparian habitat.

los gatos creek-san jose CA

A couple of Hooded Mergansers float under drooping Sycamore branches, carried along on the creek’s current.

los gatos creek-san jose CA

The area is particularly inviting when trees and annual plants (like the poppies in the lower right corner) are in flower.

cormorant and canada geese-2724

It isn’t hard to find noisy Canada Geese, but the Cormorant resting with them on the shoreline was a surprise.

double-crested cormorant-

Such beautiful blue-green eyes — and the wispy feathers behind its eyes are the reason it’s called the Double-crested Cormorant.

hooded mergansers

A couple of male Hooded Mergansers were showing off for the females

"Look at me -- I'm cooler than the other guy..."

Look at me — I’m cooler than the other guy…”

ring-necked ducks-

Male Ring-necked Ducks were escorting females around also.

Spring is in the air here — flowers blooming, birds singing, males showing off their stuff, it’s a welcome treat for a winter-weary traveler.

urban wildlife

Back at one of my new favorite walks around Lake Temescal in Oakland, California, I was amazed to find the wildlife there so habituated to human traffic.  Apparently, people don’t try to bother or scare them, so the birds sit very still and just watch us walk by. We passed within six feet of this Black-crowned Night Heron, and the grandkids were not particularly quiet about seeing it either.

black-crowned night heron-

I’m liking my smart phone more and more as my go-to camera when out for a walk with the grandkids (instead of a regular photo hike).

At the other end of the lake from the Night Heron was a “gulp” of double-crested cormorants, or you could say, a “fllght, rookery, sunning, or swim” of them — such are the collective nouns for a group of Cormorants.

double-crested cormorants-

Three of the “gulp” found a raised platform in the lake on which to rest in between dives. Any surface projecting from the water will do as a sunning and drying-off place.  

Perhaps “sunning of cormorants” is a better descriptor of the group, since each time they get out of the water, they spread their wings and turn toward the sun to dry off.

Even the Wood Ducks are tame here, and quietly paddle around their small pond, not flying away the minute they spot you.  I wonder how long it takes wild animals to become as habituated to human presence as they have here — and why don’t the animals in my backyard let me approach this closely??

Cormorant capers

While taking a walk around Lake Temescal in the Berkeley, CA hills the other day, I noticed there were a few Cormorants in among the rest of the aquatic inhabitants of the lake.

waterfowl temescal park

Double-crested Cormorants (bottom center) among Ring-billed Gulls, Mallard ducks, Coots, Pigeons, and a stray female Wood Duck at Temescal Lake.

The Cormorants must have just finished their morning meal because most of them were intent on spreading their wings to dry off.

double-crested cormorant

Any structure will do as a drying platform — and their big webbed toes provide stability on this tippy buoy. Note that Cormorants do not obey the “restricted area” warnings…

double-crested cormorants

Cormorant feathers are “wettable”, unlike those of ducks and many other aquatic birds.  This reduces their buoyancy as they dive for food.  But the disadvantage of lacking the water-repellent oil on their feathers is that they have to dry off after a feeding bout in order to regain aerodynamic efficiency.

double-crested cormorants

After I got too close to them on the beach, this pair swam off together, still holding their heads up at the same angle as when they stood on beach sand.

That strange head positioning, like a person tilting their head to look out through the bottom of their bifocal lens got me to wondering why they maintain their heads at that angle.  Is there something peculiar about Cormorant vision related to their prowess as underwater fish catchers?

Some researchers speculated that Cormorants might possess superior underwater vision because they are so successful in capturing prey in 70-80% of their attempts. But, in fact, their visual acuity is no better than ours (without a dive mask) underwater, so how do they do it?


And how do they manage to catch anything in water like this?

Cormorant visual acuity is definitely poorer under conditions of low light, high turbidity, and in open water lacking any sort of underwater structures.  In fact, they do far better in habitats where they can chase fish out of their hiding places.  And they will strike at anything that moves — fish or other, moving objects — by lunging at the intended prey with a rapid neck extension, much like herons and egrets striking from above down into the water.  So they are apparently cued by movement, not definitive shape of a prey item.

double-crested-cormorant-National Geographic-by Sandy Scott

Cormorants can rotate their eyes independently forward, up, down, etc.  But when they need to see what it at the end of their bill, the eyes turn inward, and with head slightly up, they can see straight ahead with binocular vision.

Once they have snatched something in one of their diving forays, they bring it up to the surface to inspect it, and powerful extra-ocular muscles move the eyes to focus on the tip of their bill to see what they have caught.  If it’s edible, down the gullet it goes; if not, they spit it out.

Flying down the river

I had a few minutes to kill while waiting to see the “Hurricane on the Bayou” (the before and after of Hurricane Katrina in NOLA) at the Imax theater on the Riverfront in New Orleans, so I walked over to the levee to watch the local birds perform their aerial stunts.  One lone Brown Pelican soared up and down the riverfront without flapping, using just the lift provided by wind off the water.  The clean, aerodynamic lines of the wings as the bird maneuvers through its turns are truly impressive.

brown pelican

brown pelican-1

brown pelican-2

I’ve seen these birds practice this dynamic soaring over ocean waves where they can exploit the difference in velocities of the moving air masses, but never over the quieter moving water of a river like this.  The bird employed a sort of figure 8 pattern, zooming close to the water surface, and then rising up swiftly to make a turn and back out of the loop to zoom down close to the surface again.  Quite fascinating to watch.

The neck is tucked in tightly to reduce drag.  I like the shadow the bird casts on the water as it flies by.

The neck is tucked in tightly to reduce drag. I like the shadow the bird casts on the water as it flies by.

Laughing Gulls were quite numerous, but flew by me much more rapidly, making it difficult to focus accurately.  They too use their long wings to soar, but flap to change direction continuously, as they key in on potential food sources.  Laughing Gulls are one of the most common gulls along the coastal areas of North America.

Laughing Gulls

gull flight

One of these gulls had distinctive white spots on tips of its black primary flight feathers.  It might have been a migratory Franklin’s Gull, which are also found along the Gulf Coast in the winter.

Crescent-shaped white spots on the trailing edge of the wing tips are more typical of Franklin's Gull than Laughing Gulls.

Crescent-shaped white spots on the trailing edge of the wing tips are more typical of Franklin’s Gull than Laughing Gulls.

A Double-crested Cormorant flew by, too quickly for me to get a good photo of it in flight.  They flap their wings rapidly and continuously to get from one place to another, and my shutter speed was entirely wrong for that action.   But the bird did pose nicely for me while it was diving for food.

Orange throat pouch and blue eyes are characteristic of this species.  The double-crest is only seen in breeding birds.

Orange throat pouch and blue eyes are characteristic of this species. The double-crest is only seen in breeding birds.